The recent Sunday Times investigation into suspicious athlete blood samples made headlines for allegedly including a British household name. Combined with MP Jesse Norman’s remark that appeared to raise suspicions about a prominent British marathon runner, Paula Radcliffe was advised to go to the media to defend herself and clear her name before being explicitly outed in a situation the PR world refers to as ‘crisis management’.
Crisis management is defined as “the process by which a business or other organisation deals with a sudden emergency situation”, in this case, the suggestion that Paula Radcliffe had suspicious blood samples that may lead to investigations about doping. In order to prevent headlines explicitly accusing her and tarnishing her reputation, Paula Radcliffe’s PR team set to work to release a personal and detailed statement with the intention to prove her innocence.
Crisis management is defined as "the process by which a business or other organisation deals with a sudden emergency situation"
As a result, the media furore surrounding the accusations was reported on her terms, with headlines such as “I’m no drugs cheat” (Daily Mail), “By linking me to allegations damage done to my name can never be fully repaired” (The Guardian) and “Paula Radcliffe ‘categorically’ denies cheating” (BBC online). As Tim Jotischky, senior consultant at reputation management agency PHA Media, commented, ‘her words made the headlines, not the words of her accusers’, giving Radcliffe more control over the way in which the story was reported.
This is crucial in crisis management. Whilst it is impossible to remove an allegation, it is possible to control how a story is reported, and ensure that your version of events prevails. Radcliffe’s initial silence allowed doubts to develop, but her fighting spirit and emphatic denial, which she ensured was widely reported in the UK media, made certain that her voice was heard above all else in a case of attack being the best form of defence.
With her reputation on the line, this was a brave decision for Radcliffe, especially her refusal to release data in the interest of transparency. As her PR advisers would have warned her, data can be misinterpreted, and it is safer to take the strong stance that she has nothing to prove in the first place in order to control the information that is released about her.
In short, Paula Radcliffe’s recent response to suspicious blood samples has taught all of us a lesson in PR crisis management.